Plains Indian Wars

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Plains Indian Wars

Clashes between Native Americans and settlers had occurred since the 1600s. Tribes in the Northeast forged respectful relationships with fur traders and missionaries, but English settlers lived in constant fear of attacks. After the American Revolution (1775–83), the new government had to deal with a major problem: how to convince the Native American tribes in the Northwest Territory (land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River) to leave their land so white settlers could move in.

After many battles, the Treaty of Greenville was signed in 1795 and the tribes left Ohio for Indiana . The treaty allowed tribes to retain hunting rights to the land, and it promised them an immediate payment of $20,000 in the form of everyday goods. Tribes would also receive another $9,500 in goods annually, to be split among them. But settlers soon began moving in on Native American lands in Indiana, too. This breach of contract angered the tribes, and they formed a confederacy led by Shawnee chief Tecumseh (1768–1813). His death in the War of 1812 )1812–15) ended the threat from the Northwest Territory, and the U.S. government was able to develop a policy for removing Native Americans from the region.

By 1860, most Native Americans had been relocated across the Mississippi River, but the tribes did not leave their homelands willingly or without a struggle. In addition to many smaller conflicts, the relocation

program resulted in the First Seminole War (1817–18), the Black Hawk War (1832), and the Second Seminole War (1835–42). (See Seminole Wars .) These wars marked the beginning of more than twenty years of battles between Native Americans and whites.

Relocating the Native Americans did not end the conflicts between the tribes and the settlers and military; it simply changed the setting. The battles were now taking place west of the Mississippi River, primarily on the Great Plains, and they came to be known as the Plains Indian Wars (1866–90). The Great Plains covers all or parts of New Mexico , Texas , Oklahoma , Colorado , Kansas , Nebraska , North Dakota , South Dakota , Wyoming , Montana , and some Canadian provinces. Territory this vast was the homeland for numerous Native American tribes, but the dominant groups were the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Crow.

Plains tribes were mostly peaceful and lived together with little conflict. But as white settlers moved into the region, the Native Americans grew increasingly distraught and angry. The settlers slaughtered buffalo herds to the point of near-extinction. The tribal peoples depended on the buffalo for their way of life. They respected the buffalo and hunted it with great appreciation, killing only what they needed and using every part of the animal for food, clothing, and weapons. The mindless slaughter by white settlers led to the first conflicts between the tribes and the white men.

Hunting was not the only point of contention between the two groups. Corruption among Indian agents (representatives of the U.S. government who worked with Native Americans) created distrust and resentment between the Native Americans and outsiders. The responsibility of these agents was to respond to Native American concerns, but some agents stole supplies intended for the Indian reservations (federal land allotted to and managed by Native Americans), and others stole money that was supposed to go to the Native Americans as outlined in various treaties and agreements.

In addition to corrupt agents, the Native Americans also were expected to tolerate prospectors (gold miners) trespassing on sacred tribal grounds. Railroads posed another problem when they began interfering with traditional hunting practices. Overall, the Native Americans’ way of life was destroyed.

Hostilities peaked between 1869 and 1878. More than two hundred battles were fought during those years. By the late 1870s, the goal of the federal government became the Americanization of the “savages.” Hiram Price (1814–1901), the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs , wrote in his annual report for 1881 that to “allow them to drag along year after year … in their old superstitions, laziness, and filth … would be a lasting disgrace to our government.”

Mighty men

The Plains Indian Wars featured many heroes. These warriors demonstrated their prowess in battle as well as an ability to lead and influence entire nations of Native Americans in what would turn out to be their darkest period in history.

Geronimo Geronimo (1829–1909) was an Apache warrior whose birth name was “Goyakla,” which means “one who yawns.” Mexican soldiers game him the name “Geronimo.”

Although Geronimo was never a chief, he often acted as spokesman for his brother-in-law, an Apache chief with a speech impediment. Mexican soldiers butchered Geronimo's wife, three children, and mother in 1858 when they raided the Apache camp. From that point on, Geronimo was on a mission of vengeance.

Highly respected among the Apache, Geronimo's courage and aggressiveness in battle were honorable traits. Legend has it that he had special powers and could walk without leaving footprints. With such powers, he earned the title of medicine man.

Geronimo and his people fought against the U.S. government fiercely as it tried to force them into an unnatural way of life. He surrendered in 1886 in Arizona and was sent, along with 450 of his tribe, to Florida , where they remained captive until 1888. They were forcibly moved several times after that, and in 1909, Geronimo died while a prisoner of war at Fort Still, Oklahoma.

Sitting Bull Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) was a highly respected Lakota Sioux chief whose visions of the defeat of General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) and his own death came true. Another warrior who would not go quietly, Sitting Bull and his tribe fought the government throughout the Plains Wars until it became clear they could never win.

The most famous battle Sitting Bull ever fought in was the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876), also known as Custer's Last Stand . He led the Sioux and other tribes in a major victory against Custer and the Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Sitting Bull and his warriors killed Custer and all of his men.

Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881 and was sent to Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakota Territory. When it became apparent that he was still quite a powerful influence, federal agents moved him and his followers to Fort Randall (in present-day South Dakota), where they lived for two years as prisoners of war. In 1883, Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock, where he spent the remainder of his life. The great chief was murdered accidentally by one of his own tribesmen in 1890, an event he had predicted five years earlier.

Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph (c. 1840–1904) belonged to the Nez Perce tribe. Born in Oregon , he became chief around the age of thirty, upon the death of his father. Unlike other mighty chiefs, Joseph's reputation was based not in his great ability as a warrior, but in his deep wisdom and diplomacy.

Joseph managed to keep his tribe's lands despite the continuing influx of white settlers into their valley. In 1877, the U.S. Cavalry threatened to attack the Nez Perce, and only then did Joseph reluctantly agree to move to Idaho . Not all of the members of the tribe were so willing to cooperate, however, and twenty young warriors broke away from the tribe to attack a white settlement. From that point on, the army was in pursuit of the Nez Perce. Joseph was against the war, but he was even more against being bullied by the white man.

Throughout the next three months, the Nez Perce, who numbered around seven hundred (of whom just two hundred were warriors), marched more than 1,400 miles and fought off about 2,000 soldiers in more than four major battles. Even the most experienced American generals considered the Nez Perce courageous and skilled.

Joseph and the Nez Perce surrendered in October 1877 with the promise that they would be taken home, but instead, they were forced into Kansas and from there, to what is now Oklahoma. Many of his people died of disease. It was not until 1885 that Joseph and his remaining people were allowed to return to the Northwest, and even then, they were made to live on a non–Nez Perce reservation apart from the rest of their tribe. Joseph died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland.

A bloody end

The Plains Indian Wars ended with the Wounded Knee massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army slaughtered around three hundred Native Americans, two-thirds of them unarmed elderly, women, and children. Twenty-five U.S. soldiers were killed, the majority of them from friendly fire. Although fighting between Native Americans and whites continued into January, Wounded Knee officially marked the end of the Plains Wars.